LA Synthesis - 'Matrix Surfer'
No. 33 in our Top 100 Electronica Albums of the 1990s
LA Synthesis stands for “Linear Arithmetic Synthesis,” a term invented by Japan’s Roland Corporation to describe the unique power of 1987’s D-50 synthesizer, which overlaid choir, wind and string samples with digital sound waves to create gorgeous and famous presets like “Digital Native Dance,” “Glass Voices” and “Living Calliope.” It’s also the name of one of techno’s most extraordinary but short-lived acts, whose Matrix Surfer album lives on as a timeless artifact of European electronica’s deepest yearning and dreaming, manifesting pacific waves in cyberspace.
England’s Tony Gallagher and Carl Grant, who hailed from Liverpool and Birmingham, formed LA Synthesis in 1992 after meeting in the South London rave scene. They hit it off after discovering they shared a taste for Warp, Juan Atkins and Steve Reich, and developed a cosmic cybernetic sound that rejoiced in the sublime. Promo copies of their epic ‘Agraphobia’ appeared in 1994, a tip of the hat to their love of wide sonic shapes, immediately turning heads with its endlessly spiraling saw lines and pulse waves, cut through with melodies that sparkled as if in an ice cave.
But LA Synthesis weren’t just about the chin-stroking armchair posture. Their compositions wound to propulsive drums and liquid bass crashing at the edge of the dance floor. Mr. C‘s Plink Plonk label released ‘Agraphobia’ with a Kenny Larkin remix, drawing on Gallagher and Grant’s obvious affinity for Detroit techno’s kinetic beauty. Locking themselves in their studio, LA Synthesis labored on Matrix Surfer after securing a deal with France’s Shield Records. While sharing some of the quirky warbles and broken aesthetic of The Black Dog, the album’s eponymous ‘Matrix Surfer’ and ‘Positive Negative’ glide from the get-go to a booming metronome.
It’s that grid-like undergirding that maps out the oceanic voyages ahead. Recorded and released three years before The Matrix film, Matrix Surfer reminds us that there was once a time when myths about the machine were undiscovered, whether it was the frontier of Tron, with its echoes of the Western — when Tron, Ram and Flynn rest their cycles and drink at an electric stream — or the dystopian acid rain Hades-scape of Los Angeles in Blade Runner — where androids, or Replicants, dream of living free with lifespans as long as humans, capturing and embodying the baby-like bursts of our own future imaginations. And in the sounds of LA Synthesis, we can hear that deep inner life that hums today in billions of phones, computers and algorithms.
Just as magical to Grant and Gallagher was surfing the waves of the wider universe. For Matrix Surfer also inhabits a marooned ambience. Picking up from their breakout ‘Agraphobia,’ which thankfully is included here, ‘Wasteland’ struts to a moody groove, its bass line bubbling under the acid clouds of a poison planet. A ‘Frozen Tundra Dub’ takes these excursive pleasures further into the unknown, its tapping drums swinging under the snowcapped mountains of some distant moon. Each time, melodies react to airborne rhythms in what feels like a chemical chain reaction, at once beautiful and strange to behold. In this wider view, ‘Agraphobia’ itself calls to mind the familiar formations of alien worlds, from the Face on Mars to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, engaging planetary geographies with low gravity leaps, drifts and arcs.
While it was released before Matrix Surfer, the centerpiece of ‘Agraphobia’ plays a crucial role in the album as an album. As part of the last decade when long-players were conceived and received as deeper narrative experiences, LA Synthesis’s most famous composition fits seamlessly as the nerve center of an infiniteness core to their sound. It undulates and whips, and stirs and quakes, rumbles and thrashes and floats and surprises. Surfing a sonic info-world of electrical currents, synthesized samples, filters and arpeggios, accelerandos and glissandos, of modulators and oscillators, ones and zeroes, ‘Agraphobia’ or “agoraphobia” — the fear of crowds and packed places — prefigured a future in which hearts and souls would yearn to breathe.*
In this vein and returning to the circuit flux of opener ‘Matrix Surfer,’ LA Synthesis steps back into the more cyberpunk and Blade Runner-esque mind-scapes of ‘If’ and ‘Du Androids Dream.’ The former races to a faster beat, buzzy synths zipping by like median lights on the windshield of a hover vehicle cruising through a neon city. The latter rolls to a funky groove, a robot chicken plucking to the resonant vibrations of an upright bass, calling to mind the androids that cartwheel and leap and punch through walls in Blade Runner, evoking the altered cyber-states of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Taking a more electro angle, ‘Fromage Centralle’ stretches its vast corrugating neural network in waves of elastic sound like luscious taffy, its French title a cheeky play on words, a phat and fatty acid “central cheese.”
But the best comes last with a tone poem for the ages. ‘Zyllvakrynn’ is one of the most beautiful compositions of all time and by itself secures LA Synthesis as great heroes in the techno pantheon. It burns with an oracular fire, its melody unfolding in the sky like rain curtains of quicksilver, its quiet drums and piano forming a lullaby to princely sleep — the good omen of doves swirling at a long quest’s homecoming.**
What does the strange word “Zyllvakrynn” mean? It’s not a word found in any language but some strange doodle of sequenced letters that draw a sweet sound. That’s fitting for a band that is still obscure and shrouded in mystery. Not unlike “Linear Arithmetic Synthesis,” it points to something bigger than name alone.***
For why were Gallagher and Grant denied bigger chances? There’s no good answer, only a heart-wrenching adieu at surf’s end. That’s surely more than most artists ever give or gather. And yet, for every matrix surfer facing the waves, dream on, because there’s always afterlife in the timeless.
1. Matrix Surfer
2. Positive Negative
3. Fromage Centralle
5. Frozen Tundra
8. Du Androids Dream
9. Frozen Tundra Dub
*In 2015, Belgium’s De:Tuned records, home to several releases of like-minded producers from the 1990s, including David Morley, Stasis, B12, Robert Leiner, The Kosmik Kommando, Terrace, Steve Stoll and As One, commissioned an acclaimed mini-remix album of ‘Agraphobia’ featuring Plaid, Ian O’Brien and Terrace, titled Agraphobia Relapse.
**Still a Tom Middleton favorite, ‘Zyllvakrynn’ won LA Synthesis a place on Global Communication’s Evolution label, where they would pen the electro classic ‘Harmonic Disassembly.’ Also worth checking out are LA Synthesis’s releases for A13 and Blue Basique. They would also co-write music with Middleton for Carl Cox’s Intec Digital.
***LA Synthesis is still alive and thriving. In more recent years, Carl Grant (“AKA Matrix Surfer”) has proceeded, releasing more material, including archived tracks, via his Vortexian Recordings on Bandcamp, new collaborations, live DJ and PA bookings, Soundcloud outputs and radio broadcasts. You can follow him at LA Synthesis.